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To App or Not to App

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AppsMobile apps are popular with public sector agencies. From securing a parking space to checking a bus route, local governments are now offering residents quick and easy access to agency amenities through the use of mobile apps. But just how useful are they in local government, and more importantly, is it worth the investment to create one?

An app, short for “application,” is a software program that is typically used on mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. It is really not much different than any software program that one might have used in the past on a computer except, in this case, the app is being distributed for free to the public by the agency. This is made possible through the ubiquity of mobile smartphones and the ease of software distribution made possible by app stores, such as Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store.

In the private sector, apps have been a must-have tool, if not the entire root for the existence of their companies (think Uber), and with good reason. A 2017 study from analytics firm Flurry shows that most people spend up to five hours on their mobile device each day. Apps have proved popular both for their presence on addictive smart phones and for their ability to integrate information from the Internet with the numerous sensors present on smartphones, such as geolocation, direction, light, camera, sound, barometer and more. Combining sensors and data supercharges the utility of apps, creating huge usability for users and resulting in furious adoption rates. Apps have further levered their presence in our pockets or next to our bedsides by using push notifications to make their way into our daily routines.

Naturally, public sector agencies have sought to mimic the private sector and create mobile apps for their communities. For the same reason Facebook needed to be on mobile phones to stay connected with users, public agencies can foresee the same benefits. With the help of app developers including My City Mobile App, Neologix, Onvia, NEAD, 14 Oranges and Mobomo, creating an app can seem simple.

However, with public agencies already fighting the civics battle to ensure the public understands where and how their services add value to their lives, getting people to use a custom app can be difficult and expensive. And in the highly competitive space of creating sticky apps for our residents, public agencies need to realize they are competing with Twitter, Facebook, Tinder, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Netflix, Audible, Spotify, podcasts and more to get screentime with their constituents. That is stiff competition.

Unlike a failed venture capital-backed app, in the public sector, failed mobile apps can raise concerns about use of taxpayer dollars. Public agencies, therefore, face some particularly challenging questions in the decision to create an app.

The question of whether to create a mobile app is made more difficult by the reality that getting a constituent to use an app requires action on their part. First, users have to learn there is an app. Second, they have to find it in an App Store and install it (which includes the precarious step that they actually remember their password for the App Store). Finally, once installed, they have to choose, in the future, to actually tap and open the app to explore around or put it to use.

Contrast those steps with the simplicity of a Google search that leads residents straight to a page on your agency’s website or social media platforms with key information your community might be seeking. Indeed, they may have gotten to that information through using a Google App or Bing App to search the Internet from their device.

With these scenarios in mind, public agencies need to deeply consider the utility of the mobile app they are building and ensure that the “hype” of having a mobile app does not overwhelm the practical realities of investing in a mobile app that will be “sticky” and add value for constituents. Additionally, public agencies need to consider if a mobile app is even required or if the modern capabilities of a mobile-optimized website will achieve the same objectives.

So how can an agency overcome these challenges and cut straight to its benefits? Consider the following steps to evaluate your mobile app efforts:

  1. xamine current website traffic to the agency’s website and determine how much traffic is from a mobile device. Google Analytics can help with that.
  2. Review your existing website for having a responsive design or being mobile-optimized.
  3. Determine if there is certain content mobile users use the most to get a sense of the kind of content that is of interest to your audience. For example, in some cities the bus route information is much more popular for mobile users than desktop users.
  4. Identify the features that need to be baked into the mobile app that are different from the website or take advantage of the sensors on the mobile phone that your website currently can’t accomplish.
  5. Don’t compete with existing consumer apps. If your city contracts with a service such as ParkMobile, it’s not necessary to develop an additional city parking app.

If you choose to move forward with a mobile app for your agency, then make plans to do the following once the app is ready:

  1. Promote the app with local media and engage influencers in your community, such as councilmembers, to promote the app on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Frequently post about the app on your organization’s platforms, providing a visual of the app and a shortened link to download it. Spend money on advertising to promote the app.
  2. Track usage data using platforms such as Apple’s App Analytics or Google Analytics to monitor things like user engagement and app crashes. These figures can give you direct insight into how people are using the app, calling attention to aspects that can be improved upon and further optimizing popular features to create a more seamless experience.

The bottom line is that you need to make sure there is a need for an app before launching into creating one. A website and social media platforms may accomplish the vast majority of what you need done as a public agency. After all, a new app can quickly become one more tool for staff to maintain and manage. If you are sacrificing improvements in the agency’s website or social media execution to support a mobile app, it may not be a great tradeoff.

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